With multiple standards in play, most buzz about 4G focuses on carrier competition and data rates. But what will 4G really mean to your enterprise?
Fourth generation (4G) wide area wireless networking technologies are generating much buzz. There are multiple standards in play, with carriers lining up in competing camps and commercialization expected to begin in 2009-2010, at the earliest. 4G networks are meant to replace existing 3G networks, themselves still rolling out in some key markets, including the U.S.
Most discussion about 4G, or "next generation" wireless, focuses on the competing standards and their claims of faster-than-thou up- and downstream data rates. As the carriers duke it out, Mobile Enterprise set out to answer the question of what 4G will really mean to the enterprise end-user. It's not an easy question to answer at this stage, but industry players predict some tangible benefits:
- Compatibility with Internet Protocol (IP) infrastructure will improve.
- The push for open networks will transform a core part of what enterprise I.T. does across the wide area.
- Unified communications and fixed-mobile convergence, will become easier to execute than is currently possible.
- Increased interoperability will redefine the service relationship between enterprises and wireless providers.
Mark Adams, Chief Architect of Networks and Communications for Northrop Grumman's Information Technology Sector, predicts that TCO of mobile solutions will drop as new networks become available. He says that commercial wireless wide area networks (WANs) based on cellular and WiMAX technologies will become more compatible extensions of the enterprise network than they are today.
This will make it less costly than it currently is for enterprises to integrate the software on existing corporate applications servicers with those applications running on mobile devices. Companies will be able to leverage existing IP-based equipment, applications and services to create virtual private networks (VPNs) that seamlessly extend their existing corporate I.T. infrastructure to wireless.
All of the flavors of 4G -- including LTE and mobile WiMAX (See "Preparing for 4G," Mobile Enterprise, December 2007) -- will have direct IP connectivity built in. Improved compatibility with the IP infrastructure that's already widely deployed in landline and wireless LANs will likely reduce the impedance mismatch, or technical incompatibilities, that arise between disparate mobile services and enterprise applications. This will drive down costs and redefine the business relationships between carriers and enterprises.
For the enterprise, "4G technology is going to transform what we know of as I.T.," says Adams. "Traditional wireless services were designed with special protocols that required special ways to enter the network and special software to use it." 4G networks will require fewer bridges between corporate and wireless networks.
Wireless infrastructure today mirrors the way data services evolved from the walled gardens of AOL and CompuServe in the early years of the Internet. Eventually these were replaced by an IP pipe that delivered a broad range of services through DSL and cable modems. 4G promises to deliver the same kind of functionality across the wide area mobile environment.
In the 3G world, data services operate independently of voice services, requiring multiple radios and protocols, according to Alan Mitchell, VP for Mobile Solutions at CosmoCom, which develops unified communications solutions for customer service call centers.
The goal is to open up the protocol stack used in networking -- which includes the protocols used to connect and direct traffic between the software, hardware, network interface cards and routers. This would allow the server on the corporate side and the software running on the client side to share the same protocols at all these different levels of connectivity. "4G promises to be open," says Mitchell.
Adds Adams, "The push for open networks will transform a core part of what enterprise I.T. does across the wide area. The No. 1 challenge with 3G and other cellular technologies is the deployment of the security required to allow employees to access things they do in the office. It is possible to set up security across these networks today, but this requires substantial overhead for the software that performs IP interoperability."
For example, Northrop Grumman is building one of the world's largest secure broadband networks today for public safety organizations throughout New York using UMTS TDCDMA, a precursor to LTE. According to Adams, because IP has the same kind of application protocol interfaces as standard wired network solutions, it is easier to secure than traditional cellular phone-based protocols.
Adams explains, "With 4G you will be able to use the same firewall and access lists" as are used on a wired network in an office. In other words, it will be easier to reuse the same tools from office networks and PCs for wireless networks.
He adds that with the development of IPV6 (an emerging successor to the commonly used IPV4 protocol, which promises better security and scalability), "There is a lot of technology that used to be limited to the wired side that can now be extended to wireless.
"For example, [with 4G we'll have] secure VPNs that allow us to detect and control access through policy. You can do that today on the Internet backbone, but this never extended to wireless before."
This increased interoperability will redefine the service relationship between enterprises and wireless carriers. The carriers are likely to work with enterprises and small businesses to deploy femtocells and picocells that leverage existing DSL networks to bridge wireless connectivity in the office to the global Internet, says Chris Douglas, Wireless Next-Gen Solution Executive at IBM Global Telecommunications.
Femtocells would target a small office with four to five simultaneous users. Picocells would be used in larger environments such as a shopping mall or large office.
"Within IBM, we are looking at deploying a unified communications platform," Douglas explains. "We have gone to a completely IP-based PBX system worldwide and have been wondering how to integrate that into our mobile device platform. Field and sales force automation could be driven by more of a smart-device platform. The major carriers will start to use WiMAX devices as well as a combination of cellular-based IP technology to deliver services to this kind of device."
Savvy equipment makers are developing chipsets that enable laptops, smart phones and other wireless devices to access any flavor of 4G connectivity. Kathryn Weldon, Principal Analyst for Enterprise Mobility at research firm Current Analysis, cites Qualcomm's Gobi silicon, which currently can roam across GSM and CDMA networks. Laptops embedded with multiple radios mean users won't have to choose a carrier up front, she says. "This is a disruptive technology because it will allow global roaming."
The merging of various types of wireless connectivity promised by 4G will change the dynamics of the relationship between enterprises and carriers. With enterprises seamlessly using the same devices and core infrastructure in the office via their own network backbone, and in the field using the carrier's backbone, what will happen to the carrier's billing arrangements with the enterprise? These issues are likely to be as contentious as the battles over which standard will prevail.